Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero

In the minds of many people, the terms "ecology" and "environment" evoke images of rural landscapes and wilderness, of lands that haven't been touched by human hands. But, are cities spaces all but lost to ecology? Does the environmental movement have anything to do with the big cities?

mural from the Chicken Garden in New York"Avant Gardening: Ecological struggle in the City and the World" is an anthology of essays edited by Peter L. Wilson and Bill Weinberg containing writings about the cultural, social and political aspects of ecology, with particular emphasis on the ecological struggles currently taking place in New York City. In this megapolis, which for many ecologists represents everything planet Earth shouldn\'t be, thousands of citizens have taken the initiative of rescuing empty lots and turning them into community gardens. In their essays, contributors John Wright, Bernardette Crozart and Sarah Ferguson (probably not the British duchess, but a New Yorker namesake) describe the efforts and accomplishments of activists that have created these guerrilla gardens in the midst of the concrete.

In New York there are right now some eleven thousand vacant lots in the city's possession. Just in Harlem, the city owns 1500 such lots and 1800 abandoned buildings. These spaces are a danger to nearby residents, particularly children, since they're used for illegal trash dumping, with roaming crack addicts and rats the size of cats. Faced with this situation, groups of citizens undertook the task of rescuing some of this land to transform it into green zones. Today, New York has about 700 community gardens comprising 200 acres, which is four times the size of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. It sounds like a lot, but it's not even a tenth of the area occupied by the vacant lots of the city.

The creation and maintenance of these gardens has unleashed an extremely positive social dynamic. Neighbors get to know each other, and Puerto Ricans, Anglo-Saxons, Dominicans, Colombians, Poles and immigrants of other nationalities work together planting trees and edible vegetables, painting impressive murals, investing millions of dollars in materials and labor, soliciting grants from foundations, lobbying politicians to obtain their support, organizing poetry recitals and jazz concerts. In short, everything in order to maintain and care for these gardens which have turned out to be vehicles for social organizing, cultural renaissance, ecological recovery and spiritual regeneration. One of the better known gardens was the Chico Mendes Garden, on the corner of 10th St. and Avenue B in Manhattan, in an area known as Little Puerto Rico.

In the decade of the 80's it was nothing but a horrible wasteland, and the community cleaned out the garbage, the rubbish and the junkies (the latter after pitched street fights). After the clean-up, they planted tomatoes, cauliflower, beans, garlic and cilantro, built a wooden shed and a chapel to Santa Clara, set on bushes of mint and roses. Also, a pond with fish surrounded by religious icons, including a Buddha, the Virgin Mary, a statue of a Native American and an African idol carved on wood. Why do I speak of the Chico Mendes Garden in the past tense?

Because in 1997 the city bulldozed it. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has set out to put an end to all community gardens as if it were a campaign promise. Giuliani and his political allies, who are basically the developers, the landlords and the speculators, have a vision of New York\'s future in which there's no room for the poor (who are predominantly African American and Puerto Ricans) and even less for their bothersome little gardens that interfere with "progress". Giuliani's favorite color is gentrified white.

Sarah Ferguson writes the following in her essay "The Death of Little Puerto Rico:
"At the very least (the movement to preserve the community gardens) should open people's eyes to the quiet, yet fundamental role that gardens play in humanizing an otherwise overcrowded city of strangers. More than green spaces, New York's gardens are microcosms of democracy, where people establish a sense of community and belonging to the land. Like the antic shrines and altars they construct in their flower beds, these eclectic havens are in a very real sense churches, where people find faith- both in themselves and in their neighbors. When I first moved into my building in 1994, I resented the all-night salsa and merengue that the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans on my block blasted from boomboxes on my front stoop. By the end of one summer gardening with them, I'd come to love them as an extended family."

Chico Mendez gardenAvant Gardening provides not only an account of these social and environmental struggles, but also examines the different aspects- cultural, economic, political and ecological- of gardening and the production of food stuffs, discussed in articles written by Lyx Ish and Miekal And. It also contains an extensive critique of the new genetic engineering technologies written by this author. The book is dedicated to the memory of fellow Puerto Rican Armando Pérez, who was brutally murdered this past April. Armando, whom I had the pleasure to meet a couple of times when I was living in New York, was one of the founders of the Puerto Rican cultural center Charas, located in Manhattan's 9th St., in the middle of Loisaida.

Against the attempts by the Giuliani administration and the speculators to evict Charas, he said that they would have to kill him before they could evict the cultural center from the building where it was. He was assassinated a few days after uttering these words. All social and ecological struggles are interconnected on a global level, whether it is the struggle against the U.S. Navy in Vieques island, against suburban sprawl and WalMart-ization in Puerto Rico and North America, for the preservation of the Amazon rain forest, or for the community gardens in New York City. Avant Gardening illustrates these connections.

Carmelo Ruiz is a Puerto Rican journalist and a research associate at the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont, USA. His articles have appeared in NACLA Report on the Americas, Against the Current, the Earth Island Journal, The Ecologist, High Times and other publications. Avant Gardening: Ecological struggle in the city and the world. Peter Lamborn Wilson and Bill Weinberg, editors. Autonomedia, 1999. 165 pages. To buy the book, contact Autonomedia, P.O. Box 568, Williamsburg Station, Brooklyn, NY 11211. E-mail:

Internet: Autonomedia
or to view more of the New York City Garden murals go here: Not Bored